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  1. Default

    I’m totally enjoying this, looking forward to each installment. I know we will never drive it but we did just sign on for an Alaska cruise and land tour this coming May. I know it won’t be anywhere near this intensive but I’m just looking forward to seeing that part of the world finally.

  2. #22
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    I've never done an Alaska cruise, but from what I'm told, they're amazing. Doing the combo cruise and land tour will give you the best of both worlds; so long as the weather cooperates, it should be spectacular!

    For me, making the drive was the whole point to going. The Alaska Highway was item #1 on my bucket list, and I had to wait years for the opportunity to make that trek; when the time finally came, I was very, very determined!

    In any case, keep reading! I'm not even halfway through, so there's a lot more of this story yet to come.

    Rick

  3. #23
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    Default Fairbanks, the Golden Heart City

    Day 23: Wednesday, July 15th

    Due to seasonal road closures (snow, mud, road construction, etc.) some of the maps displayed in this thread are not displaying properly or you might see pop-up windows reporting errors found with the route. Unfortunately, the map data used to create these maps enforces these "Time-outs" if a particular road segment is closed. In the case of the pop-up windows, please click "OK" and the map will display properly. In the case on some of the maps were the route seems all jammed up -- reloading the page where the map is displaying seems to solve the issue. All of these problems go away once the winter closures of the roads end. So, everything will look fine in the North American summer months.


    Click here for this RTA Library Map
    (This map shows Rick's route between Beaver Creek, Yukon and Chena Hot Springs, Alaska.)

    I woke up pretty early—the whole 4 AM sunrise thing still had me thrown off. I left Ida’s with nary a backward glance and sailed past the Canadian customs facility. The actual border was another 30 km further, and the road was very foggy. I stopped at the “Welcome to Alaska” sign and took some pictures:


    Woo hoo!

    Then I drove just a little further to the U.S. customs, once again expecting to be inspected. I stopped at a drive thru window, handed my passport to a very pleasant customs agent who asked me some basic questions about where I was from and where I was going and why, and if I’d purchased anything in Canada. My answers were apparently satisfactory because she waved me on through, no inspection of anything. It was a bit like the way US Customs at the Mexican border used to be, back before it all got so crazy. The first real town, Tok, was maybe another hour and a half further. I stopped at a place called Border City, nothing there but a funky motel and gas station. I topped off my tank and got some coffee, and chatted with the owner, a very friendly older woman who’d had a stroke 13 years earlier and was a bit crippled by it. Asked her how much the rooms were—just in case I needed a place to stay on the drive back. $85 a night, which wasn’t much cheaper than Beaver Creek, but at least she had Wi-Fi. Driving on, off to my left I could see the Alaska Range, and I was pretty sure I saw Denali, though it was from a considerable distance.


    My first view of the Alaska Range, just after entering the “Last Frontier” from the Yukon. Was that Denali? I wasn’t sure, but maybe!

    I took some pictures with my telephoto lens, just in case. That day was crystal clear, but, given all the rain in the upcoming weather forecast, there was no guarantee that I’d ever see those mountains again. Stopped at a restaurant in Tok, Fast Eddie’s, and had a quite decent breakfast. My phone magically started working again, buzzing like an alarm clock as I received a dozen texts and a whole mess of emails. I had another cup of coffee and sent some responses, excited to be in Alaska, overjoyed to be back on a 4G phone network. I never really think about it at home. Mostly, my smartphone just works, even when I'm out on the road--with occasional exceptions. In western Canada, the opposite had been true, at least for me. Most of the time, my phone did NOT work, and (I'm sad to say), I really missed it! From Tok, I drove on toward Fairbanks. I made a stop at Delta Junction, which was the official end of the Alaska Highway. Took pictures of the signpost (including a selfie, of course) and of a bunch of ancient rusty road graders and tractors and the like—some of the original equipment used to build the Al-Can, back during WW II.


    Mile 1422, end of the Alaska Highway; Delta Junction, Alaska


    A piece of the original construction equipment used to build the Al-Can in 1942

    Then? On to Fairbanks! That last leg was an uneventful drive, on markedly improved roads. I passed Eielson Air Force base, then the town of North Pole, which has a Santa Clause theme. The road was now a real freeway, the first divided highway I’d seen since leaving the Vancouver area. When I arrived in Fairbanks, I immediately started looking for a motel. Since I had the use of Siri again, I asked her for a Motel 6. No dice, so I asked for a Super 8, and she led me to one. They had rooms available, but wanted $150 a night! Yikes! I was a little freaked out, just at the thought of actually being in Fairbanks, so I took the room. I’d gained an hour with a change to the Alaska Time Zone, so it was only noon, and check-in wasn’t until 3:00. The clerk was adamant: not one minute sooner, and that left me with time to do a little exploring. I drove around Fairbanks, which to me was a fairly uninteresting town, at least on the surface—kind of funky modern, but obviously built for severe weather. I stopped at a Fred Meyer (a grocery store with general merchandise, like a Target or a Wal-Mart). I bought some work gloves, since I needed some for my tool kit, as well as a cheap sleep mask, thinking it might be useful if I try camping under the midnight sun. Stopped at the Super 8 again and tried playing on the girl’s sympathies: “Can’t you take a little pity on an old man who just drove 5,000 miles? I’m sooo tired!” But no way, not until 3:00! Phooey!

    I went to Pioneer Park, where there were all sorts of Alaska history exhibits, including an old paddle wheel steamer that used to ply the Yukon River during the gold rush, and a rail car that carried President Harding to Alaska, back in the day. I checked out a bunch of dioramas of Alaska towns at the turn of the century, and then I just sat by the playground, enjoying the amazing clouds. I called my wife and chatted for a bit, very happy to be back on the U.S. phone network with unlimited minutes. Three o’clock finally came ‘round, so I headed for the motel. There was a bit of a line to check in—apparently, all those other people had been told to wait until 3:00, same as me. The guy in front of me was also from Phoenix, which was quite a coincidence. He’d been visiting a friend who was stationed up there in the military, and they’d been fishing. The world’s best fishing, to hear him tell it, and I suspect that’s true. I checked in to my room and immediately sent a bunch of emails with the fabulous Yukon pictures I’d processed the night before. Had some dinner at the world’s most northerly Denny’s—Alaska salmon, overcooked, unfortunately, and there was a family next to me with two small kids who were having a screaming contest. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

    Back at my room, I started plotting my itinerary. My friend Carl was planning to rendezvous with me in Edmonton on August 5th, which was three weeks away. If I kept blowing $150 a night on motels, I was going to run through three grand on lodging alone in those three weeks. I decided, then and there, that I was going to use the tent the next night, even if it was snowing! It was 10 PM local time, 11 PM on my body clock, and the sun was still up. No matter; I pulled my blackout curtains and crashed. It had been quite a long day, but I was actually in Alaska! I’d done it, and, so far, my bad back was still holding.

    Next up: Chena Hot Springs
    Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 05-05-2019 at 10:17 AM. Reason: added map

  4. #24
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    Default Chena Hot Springs

    Day 24: Thursday, July 16th

    I woke up much too early, and went back to the world’s most northerly Denny’s for breakfast. This time, the food was great, and so was the experience. I struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table. They were from Tok, and had driven all the way to Fairbanks just to do some shopping. They extolled the virtues of small town life in Alaska. The woman worked with special needs native children and had some cool insights into Inuit culture. I’d loaded some of my better photos from the trip into my phone, and they went nuts over them, especially that most recent batch from the Yukon. They gave me some great tips about the area, told me I absolutely had to drive to Dawson City Yukon on the “Top of the World Highway” out of Tok. A two day round trip, but if the weather was clear when I got there, they claimed it’s more spectacular than Denali! They also told me about the Eskimo Olympics, a four day event that had started the day before at the Fairbanks convention center, featuring amazing native costumes and bizarre sporting events. I decided I would definitely take that in. Back at the motel, I plotted out my day-by-day itinerary, covering the entire time I planned to be in Alaska, and hitting all my hoped-for highlights. It all looked great; there was a LOT to look forward to!

    This day, since the weather was beautiful, I drove 60 miles or so north to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which turned out to be a wonderful place. I rented a tent camping space for $20, and I actually set up my SUV tent, by myself (which I swore I wouldn’t even attempt, for fear of wrenching my back, struggling with those crazy 14 foot long tent poles). I was quite determined, and I did it, using a bit of duct tape to secure the first end of each flexible pole while I hoisted the tent upright and set the other end in place. Having a second person to hold the first end of the pole in place is much easier, but my duct tape idea actually worked, and it wasn’t hard to do (no back strain, not really). The lesson (which I’d already learned, fortunately): never travel without a roll of duct tape! That stuff has a thousand and one uses. I cut my hand on the tent pole without realizing it and got blood all over, and when I tried using my super strong neodymium magnets to create a better seal for the tent around the back of my Jeep, two of them slammed together with such force they literally took a chunk out of my thumb—more blood! Then the same thing happened again, catching one of my fingers—blood again—damn, but those magnets were strong! Worse: I was being eaten alive by voracious, insatiable mosquitoes! Brutal! And as it turned out, the silly magnets were useless from the get-go, because no matter how well I sealed the boot there was still a sagging gap under the bottom of the Jeep that was impossible to properly seal. No matter. I just zipped closed the mosquito net on the vehicle side of the tent, which was a little less convenient, but it was simple enough to open and close the net again if I needed something out of the car.


    Tent camping at Chena Hot Springs Resort, north of Fairbanks

    After everything was set, I spent another $15 for an all-day pass to the thermal pool. I entered the building, only to find a regular swimming pool full of boisterous kids throwing balls around, the water lukewarm, at best, and there were a couple of hot tubs, which were warmer, but I was feeling a bit ripped off—it was nowhere near as enticing as the Liard Hot Springs in BC.


    The indoor thermal pool at Chena Hot Springs, great for families

    I read the signs in the pool area, and realized, silly me, that there was an outdoor pool as well; it just wasn’t visible through the windows. That rock-lined pool was fabulous, better than Liard Hot Springs, VERY warm, and wonderfully relaxing. I tried to imagine soaking in that outdoor pool in the winter, with snow all around, dark skies, and temperatures well below zero. I was told that’s a very popular pastime among the hardy folk who call Fairbanks home, but it’s most definitely not my idea of a good time!


    The outdoor pool at the hot springs; much better for us grown-ups!

    The resort overall was kind of neat. A lodge, restaurant, camp grounds, horseback riding, sled dogs, greenhouses, a geothermal energy exhibit, flowers everywhere.


    Chena Hot Springs Resort

    The place even had its own airstrip, private planes being relatively common in Alaska. After my soak in the pool I repaired to my tent, zipped myself into it to have a haven from the mosquitoes, and sat in my camping chair drinking a cold brew, perusing my maps, and feeling VERY pleasantly relaxed. Quite a good day, overall—and I was really glad to have finally used the tent, in lieu of expensive motels. I needed to do a lot more of that! But with a lot of rain—which is what the weather forecast predicted—I knew darned good and well that I wouldn’t be camping. I had a very good dinner at their restaurant, and then hung it up for the day.

    Next up: Fairbanks, and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics

  5. #25
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    Default The World Eskimo Indian Olympics

    Day 25: Friday, July 17th

    It rained pretty much all night, but I stayed warm in my sleeping bag and dry enough in my tent. Used the sleep mask I’d bought in Fairbanks, but stripped it off at some point, as it didn’t help all that much. It doesn’t really get dark at all, that time of year at that latitude—more like dusk that never quite fades to black. My brain is so accustomed to waking when the sun rises, I’m not sure I could ever adjust to the dramatic day and night swings of the far north (or south). Meanwhile, I slept pretty poorly, and woke up still tired. The tent actually did leak just a little—rain coming through the mosquito net, most likely, because I’d left the windows unzipped for ventilation. My pad got damp on the bottom and there was a tiny bit of standing water along one edge of the floor. In future, on nights with inclement weather, I was going to have to be more careful. The rain had stopped by the time I got up. I went ahead and started breaking camp, since the restaurant didn’t open until 7:00. When the time came, I took a stroll to the main building, pausing to exchange pleasantries with a group of guys on motorcycles who had spent the night in a yurt at the campsite next to mine.


    Yurts available for rent at the hot springs campground

    I had breakfast and some very good coffee, and in the parking lot outside the lodge, I saw the bikers again. One of them had a dead battery, and was using a battery charger provided by the hotel in hopes of getting it going again. I finished taking down the tent and all—pretty much of a hassle, with all the wet and the mud. On the way out, I swung through the parking lot again to check on the biker with the battery problem. Good thing I did that—turned out his battery was shot, and wasn’t going to take a charge. His companions were just guys he’d met along the route and traveled with briefly, so they were already long gone, leaving him to his own devices. I offered him a ride to Fairbanks, which he most gratefully accepted. He’d ridden all the way from Maine on that bike in just two weeks. Like me, his trip to Alaska was a bucket list thing that he’d planned for a long time, but that’s where the comparison stops. Doing all that on a motorcycle? That’s a whole different category of endeavor! We had a pleasant conversation on the hour long drive back to town, and I took him to a motorcycle shop, where he was able to buy a battery that would fit his Italian motorcycle (a Moto Guzzi). The new battery had to be charged before use—an all-day process, so I left him there, after making sure he’d be able to get back out to Chena Hot Springs on his own. Made me feel great, to have been able to offer much needed assistance to a fellow traveler. Many a stranger has been very kind to me on my own travels, and I was happy for the opportunity to pay it forward.

    Pulled over into a parking lot and used my AAA book to find a hotel for the night. None of them had rooms at their advertised rate. Some that listed rooms starting at $80 had nothing cheaper than $180, and they were unapologetic. Most of them told me they were down to their last room and that I’d best make an immediate decision or I’d lose out--but I wasn’t buying it. I found a hotel that didn’t list their rates in the AAA book, and they had rooms for $115, which sounded like a bargain compared to the others. I found it easily enough, and secured a room for the night. It was too early to check in, so I went out cruising. I did a little shopping at the Fred Meyer, and then stopped by the Carlson Center to check out the Eskimo Olympics. There weren’t many people there at that time of day, and the activities, at that moment, weren’t all that interesting. I checked the schedule, and determined that the best events wouldn’t take place until evening, when there was an admission charge.

    I’d been told I could check into my room at 2:00. It wasn’t actually ready until 3:30, which kind of annoyed me, but the room turned out to be quite decent for the price. After I unwound and checked my books and the weather report and all that, I decided that the smart move would be to stay one more night. There was a 90% probability of rain for the next day. I figured I could take a day off from the adventure to relax, hunker, do laundry, catch up on things, and plot my next move a bit more specifically. I asked at the desk if I could extend, and that was no problem.

    In the evening, I headed back over to the Carlson Center for the WEIO (World Eskimo Indian Olympics). It turned out to be a marvelous event. I put my new mirrorless digital camera into burst mode to better capture action sequences, and that worked out really well.


    Regalia contest (Venus in Furs): World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Fairbanks


    Ear Pull Contest, World Eskimo Indian Olympics: a taut cord is looped around the ear of each contestant and they both lean back, pulling away from each other, until one of them cries for mercy. Bloody ears—or worse—are a common hazard. The competition simulates the pain of frostbite, and rewards the contestant best able to endure it.


    Two-foot High Kick, World Eskimo Indian Olympics: Contestants get a running start and then leap in the air, attempting to touch a ball suspended above their head with both feet, and then they have to stick the landing, like a gymnast. It takes extraordinary athleticism to pull this off, and it’s actually a useful talent in traditional Eskimo life. On the ice, during a communal whale hunt, a member of the hunting party runs toward the village and leaps high in the air as a signal to the waiting villagers, who are watching from a considerable distance. A two-foot high kick means: “We got one! Come now, help us harvest the blubber!”


    Blanket Toss, World Eskimo Indian Olympics. This too is related to hunting. There are no trees or hills to climb on the arctic ice, so they came up with this very clever alternative means of reconnaissance: one of the hunters is tossed high in the air by his companions, using a blanket made of walrus hides. While he’s up there, he scouts the surrounding terrain and the nearby surface of the sea for whales, polar bears, walruses, and other prey. It’s said that they also do this “just for fun!”


    Seal Oil Olympic Torch, World Eskimo Indian Olympics; the sooty flame is kept burning for the duration of the games

    All of the strange sporting events celebrate traditional skills important to survival in the harsh arctic environment; the games are a way to keep those skills and traditions alive in a world that makes such things increasingly irrelevant, especially among the young people. All in all, I took more than 700 photos—action sequences, portraits, all sorts of photos. Burst mode on my camera really racked up the shots, zipping them off at 11 frames per second! I finally left, a bit less than an hour before the whole thing ended for the night, and back at my hotel, I went through all 700 images, culling them down to a couple of dozen that I post-processed. They were just excellent—a wonderful series, and fascinating. It was a very nice departure from my usual landscapes. I lost track of time, especially given the fact that it never got dark outside. When I finished it was already midnight local time, and even at that, I had trouble falling asleep.

    Day 26: Saturday, July 18th

    Woke up early, and still really tired, but I wasn’t going anywhere this day, and that was a nice feeling. It was indeed a rainy day in Fairbanks, so I didn’t do all that much. Walked around the downtown area, took a few pictures:


    The alternate “End of the Alaska Highway” monument. The strategically critical highway known as the Al-Can was built by the military in 1942, for the purpose of connecting the railroad terminus in Dawson Creek, B.C. to the existing (albeit very limited) road system in the U.S. Territory of Alaska. Delta Junction was the spot where they made that connection, so D.J., where the original new construction stopped, is generally considered the end of the Alaska Highway. Since most of the traffic on the iconic road is ultimately bound for Fairbanks, the city’s boosters built a second monument in Golden Heart Plaza, commemorating the end of the whole journey (including that last hundred miles).


    The Chena River, Fairbanks


    Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Fairbanks, built in 1904

    Back at the hotel I did some laundry. (Geez, what’s with all the laundry? Oh, right: I was camping out in the mud!) Then I made a run to the store (Fred Meyer) where I bought some supplies and a souvenir T-shirt for my collection. I was beginning to learn my way around Alaska’s second city, which seemed a bit strange! I had the “mother of all lasagnas” at Gambardella’s, the restaurant next door to my hotel. That was far and away the fanciest meal of the trip so far—pretty good, but not as fabulous as I’d hoped. (I’m a connoisseur of really good lasagna, and it’s not that easy to find.) I was feeling a bit cut off from family and friends—so far from home—so I gave my wife a call and chatted a bit. I traveled alone quite frequently when I was younger, but this was different, somehow. Now that I’m an old guy, a grandfather, no less, my attitude and priorities have matured. I’m a bit more cautious, a lot less brash. I’m thinking that’s probably for the best!

    I spent some time in the evening going through books and maps, studying the weather forecast in various locations, and pondering the possibility of driving up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range. Ultimately, I decided not to do that, which meant that it probably wasn’t worth hanging around Fairbanks any longer. Since seeing Denali was a major goal of this trip, heading south seemed the better bet. There was just one clear day predicted for the coming week, and that’s when I wanted to be at the mountain. Happy to have made that decision, I relaxed for the rest of the evening, even watched a movie on my laptop called “Bears”, a recent, most excellent Disney documentary about a Brown Bear with two newborn cubs, and the trials and tribulations of their first year of life in the Alaska Range (aka, desperately seeking salmon). Started nodding off watching the flick, relatively early—10:00 or so, which was of course still full daylight, and I wound up getting a good night’s sleep for the first time in quite a while.

    Next up: Denali National Park
    Last edited by Rick Quinn; 01-28-2019 at 06:28 AM.

  6. #26
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    Rick, you're bringing back so many wonderful memories for me, of my family's trip up the AlCan about 18+ years ago. That included all the rain you've experienced, as we had rain almost the entire way up to AK. We towed our 5W trailer up there -- like you, we experienced a mechanical problem early on that was to worry us the entire trip (but never happened again), only ours dealt with the slide-out on our trailer. Your pictures are absolutely gorgeous, too. I look forward to the continuation of your trip every time I log on!


    Donna

  7. #27
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    Thanks, Donna! Since the trip I'm describing took place 3 1/2 yrs ago, there was a lot of detail that I'd pretty much forgotten. As I put this report together, it's all coming back into focus, bringing back many wonderful memories for me as well! They call it the greatest driving adventure in North America, and perhaps that's true. If anybody out there knows of a better one, I'd love to hear about it!

    Rick

  8. #28
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    Default Denali National Park

    Day 27: Sunday, July 19th

    Woke up quite well rested, packed up my gear and checked out of the hotel by 8:00. Had a quick fast-food breakfast, stopped at Fred Meyer (again) for food and bottled water, topped off the gas tank, and hit the road, driving south in pouring rain. I had a relatively uneventful two hour drive to Denali National Park; couldn’t see much of anything, just vague ridge lines through the clouds, but I could sense the proximity of the big mountain; geomagnetic energy, maybe? It was like a presence, and it was very powerful.

    Due to seasonal road closures (snow, mud, road construction, etc.) some of the maps displayed in this thread are not displaying properly or you might see pop-up windows reporting errors found with the route. Unfortunately, the map data used to create these maps enforces these "Time-outs" if a particular road segment is closed. In the case of the pop-up windows, please click "OK" and the map will display properly. In the case on some of the maps were the route seems all jammed up -- reloading the page where the map is displaying seems to solve the issue. All of these problems go away once the winter closures of the roads end. So, everything will look fine in the North American summer months.


    Click here for this RTA Library Map
    (This map shows Rick's route between Chena Hot Springs and Denali National Park, Alaska.


    Stopped for construction on the Parks Highway north of Denali National Park; the delay, the rain, and the fog made this a typical summer day in south central Alaska.

    I drove in to the Visitor’s Center where they take reservations for the park shuttle buses, and booked myself a space on the 6:15 AM run out to Wonder Lake, on Tuesday, the 21st. That’s the date I’d been keeping my eye on for more than a week, the only day in the proximate future that the weather forecast predicted clear skies—and so far, according to the weather app on my phone, that hopeful forecast had not changed. The bus ride To Wonder Lake is a 170 mile round trip on the Denali Park Road that takes at least 11 hours. My ticket set me back almost fifty bucks, priced separately from entry to the National Park (which was free for me in any case, with my Senior Pass ;-). The bus is the only practical way to travel into the interior of the park, because private vehicles aren’t allowed beyond the Savage River Bridge, at mile 15. By restricting the volume of traffic on the road, they’ve greatly improved the odds of spotting wildlife near the road, and that’s a good thing for all park visitors.

    When I left the National Park, it was still raining steadily. I drove about 8 miles south, through a nasty road construction zone, to a place called the Grizzly Bear Resort. The property sounded pretty cool as described on the “Alaska App”, which I’d downloaded to my phone the day before, after hearing about it on the “Alaska Channel” on the TV in my hotel room. That turned out to be an excellent choice. I got a tent site for $25, a really sweet spot, though a bit too close to the noisy highway. It wasn’t exactly roughing it, not with a restaurant close by and hot showers—but still; it was perfect for my needs. I set up my tent in the rain—not all that easy to do. I had a good bit more trouble this time than I’d had at Chena Hot Springs a few days earlier—but I managed. In addition to the campsites, the Grizzly had hotel rooms with all the amenities, as well as a row of “dry cabins,” (meaning no sink, and no bathroom; the communal facilities were ten yards down the hill). I booked one of the dry cabins for the following night, only $70, which wasn’t a bad price, when you figure that the motel rooms were $200 and up. I had a decent dinner at the fancy lodge across the highway, easy walking distance from my campsite. They charged me $20 for a cheeseburger, but the place was extremely nice. They gave me a table by the window, with a great view of the Nenana River rushing by right outside.

    It was quite cold later that evening, the coldest temperatures I’d seen so far, but I had warm clothing and a warm sleeping bag, so I wasn’t worried. All in all, I felt pretty smug. Denali! I was actually there, and greatly looking forward to a major adventure! I liked my campsite, which had a table with a roof. That was actually considered a “community table” for all the surrounding sites, but it was right by my space, so it felt like my personal table, and at that, I probably had the best spot in the whole place. I was pretty tired, so I zipped myself into the tent pretty early, and crawled into my sleeping bag to try and stay warm. The highway was very close, and there was lots of truck traffic. That was bad, because the trucks were all coming down a slight grade and using their engine brakes, sounding like cars with no mufflers. They’d hit the bridge over the nearby river and the tone would rev up—almost like a vehicle out of control that was about to crash. That was more than a little disconcerting, and not remotely conducive to a good night's sleep. I read a book for a while, and then put on my sleep mask. I think I must have over-inflated my air mattress, because it was much less comfortable than usual. My back was killing me, stiff as a board, and I was freezing! That was NOT a good night.

    Day 28: Monday, July 20th

    I woke up cold, sore, and exhausted, and climbed out of the tent a bit reluctantly. It had stopped raining before I went to sleep, but it was still pretty wet and muddy at my camp site. Broke out my old camp stove for the first time on this trip—hadn’t actually used the thing in decades, but it’s a super simple design—a burner with a valve that screws directly onto a small propane bottle. I just assumed it would still work fine, and I wanted to make myself some coffee; I’d spent almost ten bucks on a big jar of instant coffee that I hadn’t even opened yet, plus $30 on a set of camping cookware that I’d never even tried. Set up the stove, lit the burner, and FOOM! Flames started spurting out of the valve! I was afraid the whole thing would blow, and the “off” valve was on fire! I blew it out, and it instantly re-lit! Blew it out again and that time managed to quickly twist it shut, without burning my hand. Phew! So much for my camp stove, my cookware, and my instant coffee! (Note to self: there’s a reason why they make you replace propane tanks every 10 to 12 years, and the same rule of thumb obviously applies to camping stoves!) Somewhat chagrined, I took down the tent, a very lengthy process that took a good hour, sponging off the worst of the mud and crud before rolling it up and putting it away. The ground cloth—my big tarp—was even worse. I spread it across two picnic tables and did my best, but it was still pretty wet and still quite muddy when I folded it up and stuck it in the Jeep. Poor jeep was getting outrageously filthy through all of this!

    After breaking camp, I drove across the highway to the fancy resort, where I got a $5 cup of coffee and a $6 breakfast sandwich. That’s just the way it is when you’re anywhere near just about any National Park; even the basics are priced through the roof and for whatever reason, people are willing to pay it. I observed the pampered tourists who were guests at that pricey hotel, all of them getting ready for their guided tours of the park. Bus after bus pulled up, filled up, and headed out. I secretly thanked my stars that I wasn’t one of them. They were at Denali, just like me, having an adventure, just like me—but my adventure was a REAL adventure, the kind you have to work for! All those tourists had to do was get on a plane, and then get on a bus, while somebody else did all the work. That was too dad-burned easy! Me, I had to drive 6,000 miles through every kind of weather, and I got to see all the amazing stuff in between, so in my mind, there was no comparison. Does that make me a self-righteous elitist? Maybe a little, but I felt like I’d earned the right to an attitude. The fact that I’d actually pulled it off was enormously satisfying.

    I drove back to Denali National Park—just a short distance up the road. The day was still totally overcast, and quite cold. I toured the visitor’s center, checked out the exhibits and some short films, then quizzed one of the Rangers about how best to use my time there. I mentioned that I was booked on one of the buses the following day—the only day that the weather forecast showed as potentially clear. The Ranger totally rained on my parade. He told me that I shouldn’t believe that weather forecast, that they were wrong far more often than they were right, and that I should be prepared for cold and drizzling rain, because that was far more likely than sunshine. In a park the size of Massachusetts, with wildly varied terrain, it’s impossible to predict the weather, since it can vary from one valley to the next and from one minute to the next. Since I wasn’t doing the bus until the next day, he recommended that I drive out to the Savage River Bridge—which was the farthest point along the park road that private vehicles are allowed to go without special permits.


    Savage River Bridge, mile 15 on the Denali Park Road. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond this spot, where there is a parking area, a campground, and several trailheads.

    I did as he suggested, and it was a very pretty drive, despite the cold and overcast. I hiked around a bit, even climbed part way up a ridge—but only part way. I find that I’ve become a bit timid about climbing, because I’m much more timid about heights than I used to be. My balance isn’t as good as it once was, and I have an old man’s brittle bones, so a slip, trip, or fall, out there by myself in a remote place like Alaska? That could be a disaster. I was disconcertingly conscious of that fact, so I was reluctant to climb very high, or to hike very far. A pity, but at the risk of cliché, better safe than sorry! I took a lot of pictures, but with the overcast sky and the poor lighting, none of them excited me all that much, not until the very end, driving back toward the park entrance, when I spotted some tall stalks of fireweed atop a small hill beside the road, with a pretty mountain backdrop. Took several shots of that spot, and they were, in fact, great pictures.


    Fireweed, Denali National Park

    Back at the Grizzly Bear Resort I checked in to my “dry cabin,” a 100 year old miner’s cabin that was built beside the Chena River in Fairbanks around the end of the 19th century. It had been abandoned for at least ten years when the folks that built the Grizzly Bear salvaged it, disassembled it log by log, and then reassembled it here.


    Dry cabin, a moderately priced alternative at the Grizzly Bear Resort, surrounded by (what else?) fireweed!

    It was very small—11 feet by 11 feet, not much bigger than my tent, but very cozy, warm, and most definitely dry. Got to thinking about it, and went back to the office to reserve it for a second night. It was much more comfortable than camping, and much cheaper than a hotel room. Since I was going to do an 11 hour bus ride in the national park, starting very early the next day, I didn’t want to have to worry about where I’d be sleeping afterwards. Also saved me the trouble of packing up all my stuff—I could just leave it in the cabin. I’d bought a Subway sandwich in “Glitter Gulch” the commercial area just north of the park entrance. Had half of it for dinner, and saved the other half for the bus trip the next day.

    Next up: The biggest damn mountain in North America!
    Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 05-05-2019 at 10:17 AM. Reason: added the map

  9. #29
    Join Date
    Mar 2016
    Location
    Phoenix, Arizona
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    Default The HIGH one! (Whoa, baby!)

    Day 29: Tuesday, July 21st

    I went to bed relatively early the night before, by 10 or 10:30 local time. I had to get up in the night to stumble down the hill to the men’s room, the one major drawback of this otherwise perfect little cabin. It wasn’t really dark out, even at 2 AM; there was a glow in the sky—from the sun, I’m sure, because it was too early in the season for the aurora. (Which was a shame—I would have loved to have seen it). I set the alarm on my phone for 5 AM, just in case, but I was out of bed long before it went off, excited at the prospect of finally seeing Denali. I most definitely didn’t want to be late for my bus! The sun was up, needless to say, but it was still behind the mountains, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I drove to the National Park Wilderness Center, and I was early, despite a construction delay on the road. Fortunately, they had both coffee and pastries available for sale, and I needed both!


    The Green Bus (shuttle) to Wonder Lake, a 170 mile, 11 hour round trip.

    The bus to Wonder Lake left right on schedule. I’d struck up a conversation with an older guy named Bob, a retired corporate accountant from Arkansas, and an avid amateur travel photographer, just like me. Bob and I kept each other company through most of the long, beautiful day. Our first view of the mountain came at about mile 20, and it was breathtaking, perfectly clear.


    My first view of Denali, “the high one,” peeking up above the other mountains at mile 20 on the Denali Park Road

    The bus stopped frequently for views, and also for wildlife.


    Polychrome Overlook, from the Denali Park Road

    Through the day we saw at least three grizzlies, a couple of moose, at least a half dozen caribou, and because of the strict park rules prohibiting interaction with wildlife, the animals didn’t feel threatened, and ignored us like we weren’t even there. Each vantage point was closer to the mountain, each had a different perspective, and the farther we traveled, the bigger Denali loomed.


    The biggest mountain in North America grew larger at each viewpoint, until we got to the Stony Hill Overlook at mile 62, which offers the most spectacular view of all

    Through the day I took close to 600 photos (between the two cameras), and dozens of the images were five star, for real. The end of the line for this bus tour was Wonder Lake, just a few miles short of the ultimate end of the road at Kantishna, where there is a back country roadhouse and small cabins for rent. (If you have to ask how much, you probably can’t afford it ;-) Bob and I got off the bus at a Y junction just before the lake, and we hiked a mile or so to the “Reflection Pond,” a smaller lake, surrounded by fireweed, which was perfectly positioned to catch a reflection of the mountain in the water.


    A tiny bit of breeze rippled the surface, spoiling what could have been a perfect reflected image of Denali, mirrored in this small lake known as the ‘Reflection Pond.’

    The light wasn’t quite perfect, and the water was stirred slightly by a light breeze, so it wasn’t a perfect mirror—nothing like Kluane Lake in the Yukon, but it was still well worth the short hike there and back. Our same bus picked us up again after turning around at Wonder Lake, and off we went, headed back, albeit slowly, toward the beginning of the road at the entrance to the park. The mountain was starting to gather a few clouds, and by the time we got back to the Eielson Visitor’s Center, another major viewpoint at mile 66, Denali was already greatly obscured, and getting worse by the minute.


    The view from Eielson Visitor’s Center on the afternoon of my perfect day; after a beautifully clear morning, the mountain was cloaking itself in clouds once again

    I was very fortunate to have chosen that day and that hour for the tour, because the window of clear weather was seriously short. As it was, we’d been blessed with a world-class view of Denali and her sisters, the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range, gleaming brightly in the sun. The mountain is hidden by clouds so consistently, two out of every three visitors to the National Park leave disappointed; many of them don’t see Denali at all, others catch no more than a glimpse of a portion of the mountain. I was one of the lucky “30%,” who DO get to see the whole of the massive peak, and I was pretty darned happy about it.

    Eleven hours on a bus makes for a very long day, but it was very, very full. I had interesting conversations with a wide variety of people, most of them very well-traveled. I ended the day pretty beat, but really, really satisfied. Seeing Denali was my biggest single goal for this trip, and I’d done it, I had unequivocally done it! I came, I saw, and while I didn’t exactly conquer, I sure as heck took some amazing photographs! I stopped by Glitter Gulch again for another Subway sandwich—the cheapest meal in the area, then I drove back south to the Grizzly Bear Resort, where I was extremely glad to have my warm little cabin waiting. I stayed up quite late going through the photos I’d taken that day, getting the best ones edited and reduced to a size appropriate for email, ready to share with family and friends when I got to Anchorage, and what I assumed would be a stable high speed Internet connection.

    Next up: Anchorage

  10. #30
    Join Date
    Mar 2016
    Location
    Phoenix, Arizona
    Posts
    336

    Default Big City Blues

    Day 30: Wednesday, July 22nd

    I woke up earlier than I’d intended. Once again, I had to use the dadburned men’s room, which meant getting fully dressed and walking down the hill; I tried going back to sleep afterwards, but no use, once I was up, I was up. I needed a shower, but discovered that something was amiss, and there was no hot water—at all! I settled for sticking my head in the painfully icy stream and just washing my hair, knowing that I’d have a chance to take a proper shower when I get to the big city. I bid the Grizzly goodbye at 9:30 or 10:00, not in any kind of hurry, and drove off toward the south.

    Due to seasonal road closures (snow, mud, road construction, etc.) some of the maps displayed in this thread are not displaying properly or you might see pop-up windows reporting errors found with the route. Unfortunately, the map data used to create these maps enforces these "Time-outs" if a particular road segment is closed. In the case of the pop-up windows, please click "OK" and the map will display properly. In the case on some of the maps were the route seems all jammed up -- reloading the page where the map is displaying seems to solve the issue. All of these problems go away once the winter closures of the roads end. So, everything will look fine in the North American summer months.


    Click here for this RTA Library Map
    (This map shows Rick's route between Denali National Park to Anchorage, Alaska.)

    The much heralded lookout points, where Denali can often be viewed from the highway, were a big disappointment. I stopped at the first one, Denali View North, and the mountain wasn’t visible at all. (What a difference a day makes!) And as for the second, Denali View South, I flat missed the turn, because road construction along that section of highway obscured the signage. When I realized I’d gone past the exit, it wasn’t worth turning around; not with solid overcast and low cloud in every direction. At the town of Cantwell, first actual town south of the National Park, I stopped to top up my gas tank, and it was the highest price I’d seen in Alaska--$4.29 a gallon for regular. I got a few gallons anyway, just because, but I actually should have skipped it. By the time I got to Talkeetna, only fifty miles further south, the price had dropped to $3.39, which was much closer to what I’d been paying elsewhere. All in all, it took longer to get to Anchorage than I expected—almost five hours, and it started raining heavily as I approached the city. The mountains were quite dramatic. I’d been to Anchorage once before on a business trip, but I’d never seen the city from this vantage point, driving in from the north. From this direction, Anchorage was strikingly beautiful, with sheer peaks rising almost straight to the sky, some still streaked with snow at higher elevations, and a big river flowing alongside the road. Anchorage really does have a remarkable setting, though it’s easy to lose track of that fact when you’re just driving around the town. For the most part, if you’re not looking up and out? Anchorage could be anywhere, USA. All the same fast food places, the chain restaurants and stores, and all the hustle and bustle of impatient drivers and throngs of pedestrians in the busy downtown area. But when you look a little closer, just beneath the surface, it’s most definitely different, and the year ‘round residents are a hardy breed indeed.


    Random neighborhood in Anchorage, very pretty in the fall; photo taken in September, 2000 (NOT on this trip!)

    Burned out from the long drive, the bad weather, and the sudden flood of city traffic, I just drove straight to the Motel 6 that I’d spotted in my AAA book, thinking back on my experience in Seattle, where the Motel 6 had been perfectly fine in terms of the quality of the rooms, and half the price of the mid-range chains. I found the place easily enough, and pulled into the nearly full parking lot. Even from the outside, it was obvious that this Motel 6 was newer and nicer than average, but even at that, I was unprepared for the sticker shock: the price for a single room at this discount chain motel was north of $180 per night! This was the peak of their peak season, the clerk explained. Hotels in Alaska make most of their money for the year during the brief summer season, so prices go through the roof, offsetting the slim pickings of the long winter, when the flow of tourists cuts back to a frozen trickle. I took the room anyway, because I was just too fried to try and figure out an alternative. Up in my room, I sent out Denali pictures to everyone I know, which was great fun. Then I went out in search of dinner. Siri took me to “restaurant row,” right around the corner, where there were a dozen or more of the national chains to choose from. I spotted a Lone Star steakhouse, so I treated myself to a petite filet mignon with a proper salad and a loaded baked potato. Best meal I’d had in a month, and I wolfed it down like a starving linebacker! Back at the hotel, I spent some time figuring out where I might camp the next night, to avoid the exorbitant hotel cost. I found a couple of possibilities, which was quite a relief. After that, exhaustion caught up, and I crashed early.

    Day 31: Thursday, July 23rd

    I woke up with a scratchy throat, aching from head to foot. Horrors—I couldn’t afford to be sick under those circumstances! I took a hot shower, which helped some, and then went out to a nearby IHOP for breakfast, which also helped. Back at the world’s most expensive Motel 6, I called my wife, and then I took care of pre-warning both of my credit unions that I’d be traveling in Canada again at the end of the month, to avoid the problem of my cards being shut off after I cross the border. Then I called Lauren, my daughter, to wish her well on her 33rd birthday!? (That gave me pause. Where the devil did all those years go, anyway?) Then the sun came out.

    I was still feeling crappy, but check-out time was fast approaching, so I gathered my things, loaded the Jeep, and took off. First stop was the now familiar Fred Meyer for some bottled water and other supplies. On my way out of town, I stopped at a cheap looking motel I’d spotted, to ask them their rate. Since I was still sick-ish, the thought of camping or sleeping in the Jeep really didn’t have much appeal, so when the guy said $80 a night, I jumped on it, sight unseen. The shabby condition of the front office should have been a pretty good clue that the place was a dump, but I was so anxious to save a little money, I turned a blind eye.

    I had a couple of hours to kill before I’d be able to check in, so I drove downtown, did some sight-seeing, bought some gifts for my grandkids, then drove back to the cheap motel, feeling much worse, with a stuffed up head and an ache in my chest. The room was likewise worse than I’d feared, with torn carpet and cigarette burns on all the cheap furniture. There were poor couples with children living long-term in some of the units on the first floor, and it was pretty sad, borderline squalid, reminding me of some of the slums I’ve traveled through in Latin America, people living their lives and raising their families in conditions most of us can’t even imagine. Staying in that motel was obviously a very bad idea, but I’d already paid for it, and at that point in time, I just needed to stop moving for a while. As a precaution, I ferried all my valuables up the stairs, straining my back in the process (idiot!). Then I just sat in that dumpy room, feeling completely paranoid, listening to strange people yelling at each other in the next room, and glad I didn’t normally have to live like that! I did my share of rough travel when I was a young man; I can vividly recall a night when I literally slept in a ditch while hitchhiking through Argentina, and I’ve stayed in third-world hotels so dilapidated they made that cheap motel in Anchorage seem like a palace—but that was then, and this was now. When there's any doubt about a hotel, always check out the room before you pay for it, and if something doesn't feel right, move on. It's not like I didn't know that, so my bad experience was my own fault.

    Next up: Kenai Fjords National Park
    Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 05-05-2019 at 10:18 AM. Reason: added the map

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